Thursday, December 8, 2011

Column of the Immaculate Conception

Today's photos:


1. Already at 10:00 a.m. the front of the base of the column is filled with flowers.

2. A close-up of the fireman as he places the wreath over the arm of the statue. (Photo by Breck Trevino)

3. Mission accomplished! (Photo by Breck Trevino)

4. The two new wreaths will remain in place until December 8, 2012.

5. This lady was kind enough to let me take her picture as she presented her flower offering.

6. The inscription on the base of the column, between the statues of Moses on the left and King David on the right reads: Hail Mary, the Lord is with you, blessed are you among women.

7. For the occasion, one of the many military/police bands performs for the crowd on the nearby Spanish Steps.

8. The Spanish Embassy to the Vatican, just to the side of the column, is decorated for the occasion.


The Column of the Immaculate Conception


It was a cold, but beautiful day in the Eternal City this Thursday, December 8, 2011, as the city of Rome once again celebrated one of this country's favorite holidays, the feast day of the Immaculate Conception. It is one of those curious Italian mixes in which the religious and secular life of the country are strangely intertwined, as the day is celebrated as both a religious and a civil holiday. For the Church it is the recognition that Mary, the Mother of Jesus, was conceived without Original Sin: the Immaculate Conception. What makes this day special and unique to the city of Rome is that every year since 1956 the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, pays public homage to the Virgin Mary on this day.

In the heart of Rome, in Piazza Mignanelli just a few steps away from the more famous Piazza di Spagna and the Spanish Steps, there is an ancient Roman column which is supported by a very high base. At the top of the column is a statue of the Virgin Mary. The column and statue were set up by Pius IX (1846-1878) to recall the official proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, a dogma which was proclaimed by the pope on December 8, 1854.

A curiosity

Notice the dates of the papacy of Pius IX: 1846-1878, thirty-two years. His is the longest papacy among the 265 popes up to now. The second longest reigning pope is one from our own times: John Paul II (1978-2005), twenty-six years.

A tradition was begun on December 8, 1956, when Pope Pius XII (1939-1958) sent a Vatican delegation to lay a wreath at the base of the statue. It was his successor, Pope John XXIII (1958-1963) who, on December 8, 1958, just over one month after his election, for the first time left the confines of Vatican City to personally bring a floral offering to place at the base of the column. Fifty-three years and five popes later, the tradition of the papal visit to the Column of the Immaculate Conception continues. Today was the seventh visit of the current Pope, Benedict XVI who was elected pope in April of 2005.

The tradition of placing flowers at the column on this day goes back even farther than the papal offering in 1956. The firemen of Rome first placed a wreath here on December 8, 1929, asking the Virgin Mary to protect them in their dangerous work. This idea immediately caught on and soon other organizations began to do the same thing. As a result, today there are literally hundreds of organizations, schools, associations and individuals who bring some kind of floral offering to lay at the base of the column.

A curiosity

Since the firemen began the tradition, they have the honor of being the first group to present their offering at 7:30 a.m., and they do so in a way which is unique to their profession. Using one of their fire ladders, a fireman climbs to the top of the column and places two wreaths, one at the feet of the statue and one draped over the arm of the Virgin. Thanks to my friend Breck Trevino who braved the early morning cold and the crowds, we have two pictures above which show the fireman in action. Those two wreaths will remain there until next year at this time when they will be replaced in the same way.

After the firemen have done their thing, there is a steady stream of individuals and groups coming to make their offering. Some individuals bring a single flower, others a bouquet, but some organizations bring elaborate floral creations, as you can see from the pictures above which were taken about 10:00 a.m. The climax of the day, about 4:00 p.m., is the arrival of the Pope who travels in a motorcade from the Vatican to the statue. He is welcomed at the base of the column by ecclesiastical and civil officials, headed by the Cardinal Vicar who administers the Diocese of Rome on behalf of the Pope, and by the Mayor of Rome.

(To read further details of this tradition, see The Sights of Rome, Chapter 6, The Column of the Immaculate Conception. To read more about this area of Rome, including the famous Spanish Steps, see Rome: Sights and Insights, Chapter 22, Santissima Trinità dei Monti).


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